By Geoffrey Portham
FOR several years one of the highlights of our family holiday has been the drive through France to the Mediterranean.
Our rules are simple: ti deviate from the main arteries
and to potter along secondary roads where we enjoy enchanting scenery, a sense of discovery. meet a minimum of traffic and see something of rural France away from the touristy stopping places.
It's easy enough to select a route from the excellent network of minor roads by using the large
scale Michelin maps. We have always fared extremely well for very little by picking the smallest and most countrified hotels and restaurants that appeal to us and which are rarely featured in any guide hook. Some of these remote little off-beat places are now listed in the Auberges Rurales, a leaflet issued for the first time this year by the French National Tourist /Office.
To qualify for entry in the Auberges, certain minimum standards of comfort are required such as running water, bed-side reading lamps and modern toilet facilities: prices must include wine with meals and all service charges. There's particular emphasis on the guest being assured of a good welcome.
Last September in the course of a leisurely drive from Boulogne to the South we tried some of the places listed in the leaflet and although, with one exception, the value was remarkable, some of the details on price and accommodation were not accurately quoted. About 30s. a day each covered the cost of room, petit dejeuner and the two main meals with plenty of wine. Everywhere the friendliness and welcome were utterly charming.
One typical example was La Tonnelle, a combined caferestaurant, inn and grocer's shop at Pradines a quaint and diminutive hamlet on the banks of the River Lot near the beautiful old town of Cahors. It was well past 9 p.m. when we arrived, but the buxom patronne assured us ."of course its not too late for you to have a meal". She served us with a steaming tureen of Potage Payscone, a delicious omelette and a vast platter of cold meat and salad followed by fruit and cheese and with as much wine as we could drink. 1 have kept the bill, the equivalent of £2 8s. for the three of us. This included the meal, a delightful little room and breakfast of fresh baked bread, butter, home-made jam and plenty of coffee and milk. Who says France is spoiled or that you can't have an inexpensive holiday there?
There are hundreds of little offbeat restaurants in the villages and countryside where you can eat remarkably well for about 10s., with wine and service included.
Occasionally it's a worthwhile folly to hang the expense at some dedicated shrine of gastronomic perfection where a superlative meal with appropriate wines can easily cost £5 a head.
I can think of no rival to France for combining so many ingredients in a holiday formula. What other country can provide such contrasts of sophistication and simplicity?
You can swelter along the Mediterranean coast and either mingle with thousands of your cornpatriots at the cosmopolitan Riviera end, or you can explore the lesser known side of the sunbaked "midi" on the Herault coast west of Montpelier, and towards Port Vendres and Spain.
For the bucket-and-spade holiday you can go just over the horizon to Wimereux or Wissant near Boulogne. Further along the Channel coast, from dear old cosy Dieppe to Deauville and beyond, there are the traditional family "plages", many of them known to generations of British visitors, where you can stay comfortably for about 35s. a day.
In Brittany you will find picturesque fishing villages, rocky coves, great expanses of sandy beach and a choice of resorts from gay sprawling La Baule to Trebeurden, a favourite for families with young children.
Down the 600 miles or so of Atlantic coast towards the Spanish frontier at Hcndaye there are the pine fringed beaches of the Landes -excellent bucket-and-spade country having sand dunes, shrimping, and sea-side villages with modest hotels where French families return year after year. On the age Basque, Biarritz and St. Jean de Luz are eternally elegant.
You can explore by-ways through the wooded elopes of the Cevennes and find, as I did a year ago, so much to remind you of Stevenson's wanderings with donkey Modestine. For more ambitious mountaineering there is the wild grandeur of the Pyrenees and the renowned Alpine peaks.